An eNewsletter Dedicated to Helping Businesspeople Write Smarter and Faster in Plain Language
A Plain English Cheat Sheet
You’re very busy and don’t have time to skim through a textbook every time you need to refresh your knowledge of how to produce documents in plain English. So here’s a brief summary of plain English guidelines taken from “Plain English: At a Glance,” by Nancy M. Smith, former Director, SEC’s Office of Investor Education and Assistance, and Ann D. Wallace, former Senior Counsel to the Director, Division of Corporation Finance.
Every document you write should be visually inviting, logically organized, and understandable on the first reading. Here’s how you achieve these goals:
How do you create a plain English document?
- Know your audience
- Know what you need to say
- Organize your material logically
- Avoid repetition
Use these tools to write clearly:
- Active voice with strong verbs
- Short sentences
- Personal pronouns
- Concrete, familiar words
- No surplus words
- No legal jargon, and
- Use a design and layout that increase comprehension.
Design and Layout
Margins: Justifying means making the margins flush. Justifying the right-hand margin decreases readability because it causes the eye to stop at irregular spacing between words. This article has a justified left margin, and an unjustified, or ragged, right margin.
Capitalization: It‘s very difficult to read sentences in all capital letters because it’s unnatural and the normal visual cues are missing. A short header is readable in all caps, but anything more strains the eyes of the reader. Consider these other methods to highlight important information: boxing the information, changing the type size or font, or using italics.
Break up dense copy: Dense copy discourages readers. Give your reader a visual and mental break by using shorter paragraphs and headers.
Use descriptive headers: You increase readability by using headers that specifically describe the sections of your documents. If you use headers, your reader absorbs information more quickly and easily, and understands its relationship to other information. The headers can then become a table of contents that communicates information more effectively to the reader.
Use white space: Ample use of white space on each page will also increase the readability of your documents. Use 1¼” side margins and 1” top and bottom margins; indent numbered and bulleted lists; put a reasonable amount of white space around tables, pictures and other graphics; and, in general, use your common sense to include white space where necessary to make your documents visually appealing.
- Americans favorite smell is a banana.
- There are more than 100 different viruses that cause the common cold.
- Forty percent of all people who come to a party in your home snoop in your medicine cabinet.
- A manned rocket reaches the moon in less time that it took a stagecoach to travel the length of Britain.
- Elvis Presley recorded more than how many songs: 55, 205, 410, 650? (Fun Facts Answer: scroll to the bottom)
Word of the Month
eclectic | ih-KLEK-tik | adjective
1. composed of elements drawn from various sources
“Keith’s expense report had an eclectic mix of charges, ranging from imported bacon to an electric skateboard.”
Wacky & Wise Websites
Click here to see the longest bridges in the world that you can walk or drive across.
Click here to check out an augmented-reality app that creates a virtual museum featuring all of the Vermeer’s paintings.
American Express, Amgen, Cisco Systems, Department of the Navy, Fluor Corporation, General Electric, Motorola, The New York Public Library, Procter & Gamble, SEAL Team Six, State of Utah, Supreme Court of Virginia, United Way, U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Food & Drug Administration
Writing Tips & More
Now that you’ve read the newsletter, go to the menu bar at the top of this page and check out the rest of our website. Click on Blog to see more writing tips, fun writing facts, and Words of the Week.
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SATisfy Your Curiosity
SAT Exam practice question: Select the pair that best expresses a relationship similar to that expressed in the original pair.
MAELSTROM : WATER
- blizzard : wind
- rock slide : earth
- tornado : air
- tidal wave : ocean
- plateau : land
(SAT Answer: Scroll to the bottom.)
- Squirrel comes from the Greek words for “bushy tail.”
- Pittance, a very small amount of money, comes from the Latin word for “monk’s pay.”
- Emolument, a fee or profit from employment or office, comes from the Latin words for “to thoroughly grind” and originally was “payment to a miller for grinding corn.”
- To pull the wool over one’s eyes refers to the act of pulling the powdered wig—a popular fashion statement and worn by many in the 18th century—over the person’s eyes, thus temporarily blinding them.
Answer: A maelstrom creates a violent, whirling vortex of water. A tornado creates a violent, whirling vortex of air.
Fun Facts Answer
650 songs, 18 of which reached #1 in the charts